Friday, September 25, 2015

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter

"We thought turntables were for playing records until rappers began to use them as instruments, and we thought airplanes were for carrying passengers until terrorists realized they could be used as missiles.  My big thing is to look at existing technologies and try to see other ways they can be used, which happens in music all the time and happens to be what terrorists are incredibly good at."

How about if I told the reader that the fellow pictured above, Jeff Baxter, is the chairman of the Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense?  Or that he's a consultant to the Department of Defense's Missile Defense Agency, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Northrop Grumman, and Connecticut's own General Dynamics?  Or that he's one of the people on whom we count to keep us in the expectation of reasonable safety from terrorist activity?  Yeah, I though so.

Baxter was born in 1948 and is a graduate of the Taft School and Boston University with a degree in Journalism.  While he was still trying to "find himself", he took work as a clerk and occasional guitar repairman at the lamented Manny's Music Shop on the once-famous "Guitar Alley" of W. 48th St.

[An aside: Manny's, Rudy's Music, and the Sam Ash's guitar and instrument store were located between 7th and 8th Avenues, in the shadow of the Brill Building.  Manny's closed six years ago, Sam Ash moved to 34th a couple of years back, and Rudy's, the last holdout, moved to SoHo just a few weeks ago.  Honestly, to see guitar alley cease to exist within the last few years has been like losing an old friend.]

One day, in 1966, a struggling musician named Hendrix stopped by and, after some conversation about guitars, amps, pickups, and the other things that guitarists like to talk about, invited Baxter to play with his group, Jimmy James and the Blue Flames.  Suddenly, Baxter found

He played with the Blue Flames for awhile and some other groups of local notoriety, switching from the bass to the guitar with ease.  He then moved from New York to Los Angeles as the musical opportunities were greater and became a founding member of Steely Dan, one of the most popular and critically-acclaimed bands of the era.  His musicianship developed, too, and became rather legendary.  A perfect example can be found below in his solo beginning around the 2:30 mark:

Musicians of Baxter's era tended to divide between those who performed and toured before live audiences and those who mostly worked in recording studios [such as the legendary Carol Kaye, whom we profiled in November].  Baxter was unique in that he enjoyed great renown as a session-man but also deeply enjoyed performing before audiences.  So much so that, when most of Steely Dan decided to quit touring and record only in studios from that point forward, Baxter left the band in 1974 and searched for another.  It didn't take too long.

The Doobie Brothers had been around for awhile and had enjoyed some hits on top 40 radio but, with Baxter now added to the roster, their music became less simple and much more jazzy.  Suddenly not only were their sales enriched, but critics suddenly began to say favorable things about them, too.  A sample of what Baxter brought can be heard in the guitar solo [at 2 minutes and 20 seconds] that favors this DB hit:

By the 1980's, Baxter had outgrown wanting to play for just one band and, as a session musician, now could be heard playing bass, guitar, and slide guitar and composing for other bands, movies, television shows, and tinkering about in the studio with the recording equipment.  Having already lived an envious life, his interest in common electronics would lead him to his next, and very different, career.

Borrowing from some military electronics schematics, Baxter began to experiment with the algorithms used to compress sound waves so that greater aural range could be encoded onto storage devices and decoded through common MP3 and 4 formats to produce a far deeper tone in what would eventually be known as digital music.  It was inevitable that he would be drawn deeper into military technology [this is not unusual; for example, field archaeologists make use of a great deal of formerly proprietary military equipment, from ground penetrating radar to spy satellites] and discover a way to improve missile defense systems.  Eventually, a paper he wrote on the subject [yes, a guitarist who can write sentences] made its way to his congressman's office and, from there, to the Pentagon.

By the mid-1990's, Skunk Baxter, legendary rock and roll guitarist, was now a civilian defense contractor armed with an impressive collection of top secret clearances from an alphabet soup of federal agencies.  So frequently did he rub elbows with the powers-that-be that at some point he was asked to run for a seat in Congress.  Given that he would have had to shave off his legendary "walrus" mustache in order to appeal to the greater public, he declined.

Since 2001, Baxter has been deployed to counter-intelligence activities where his work is classified at the highest levels.  He has been described, with no hyperbole, as a "secret weapon" in the War on Terror, as his asymmetrical problem-solving abilities and concepts seem to bedevil both the enemies of the United States and the entrenched leadership of the Department of Defense.

Still, at the end of the day, in the recording studio in his home, Baxter takes out the six-string and plays original compositions into the equipment that he has designed, built, and calibrated, putting together yet another album or aiding a remarkable collection of musicians, both novice and famous, in plumbing the depths of their talent.